Monday, November 24, 2008

Yann Martel is Never Wrong

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 7 Number 1

by Steven Galloway

I'm noticing something about these books reviews, though it's not universally true - the amount of time that elapses between my reading them and my reviewing of them is inversely proportionate to their quality. This particular one I've just finished ten minutes ago.

The Cellist is one of Yann Martel's gifts to Stephen Harper, and a worthy one. The story takes place in the Siege of Sarajevo, and concerns the aftermath of the shelling massacre of a group of civilians standing in a bread line. A cellist resolves to play a lament on the bombed-out street for 22 days - one for each person killed.

The actual event is true - in fact the cellist who performed the tributes escaped Sarajevo and lives in Ireland...and is not nearly as pleased about the book as I am. But the book is not about the cellist, nor about the shelling that inspired the 22 laments: it is about human reaction to violence and fear. It concerns the inward struggle between honour - a person's moral code - and necessity.

While there is action in this book, the actual story is set in the minds of the characters as much as in the perilous streets. Their memories give the reader a glimpse of the past, and of the beautiful thing Sarajevo once was - and, with that glimpse, a reason to grieve for what it has become.

There are only a few characters, and for the most part their paths don't intersect with each other. Each person has a small job to do during the day we see them: one just has to get water. One has to cross a street - at an intersection covered by a Serb sniper. One is bringing a bottle of expired medicine to someone who needs whatever it can do for her. Another - a young woman with a rifle in her hand - has a darker task.

Their small rituals, their private thoughts, the things they fear and hope for, are the heart of the book. Human stories are always the most gripping, and for Sheer Grippingness, The Cellist of Sarajevo does not disappoint.

Do read this book. Something wonderful happens at the end - wonderful, not necessarily good. It's tiny and sad and symbolic - four words that signify reclamation, redemption, defiance, helplessness, vulnerability, and strength. Watch for it....and let me know what you think.

HSB Highly Specialised Book Rating System
The Cellist of Sarajevo gets

Reread? Yes
Given to Others? Without reservation.
Bookplate? Yes



Valerie said...

Thanks for a wonderful review....I'm on my way to the library this afternoon to pick it up.

Have you read Scott Simon's Pretty Birds? It deals with the same event and focuses on the recruitment of young female snipers.

Scott Simon was a war correspondent for NPR during the seige.

Shan said...

No, I haven't - I'll request it. Thanks for the recommendation Valerie.

Penny said...

I've heard other people recommending this book as well - it does sound quite deep.

Dave Hingsburger said...

I know this will make me sound shallow, but some books get presented to me like 'they are good for me' ... and I get a feeling like I'm facing a spoonful of sickly sweet cherry syrup ... That happened with this book and I just can't bring myself to pick it up.